The youngest of thirteen children, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (originally Maria Francesca Cabrini) was born on July 15, 1850 in a small village called Sant’Angelo Lodigiano, near the city of Milan, Italy. She grew up enthralled by the stories of missionaries and made up her mind to join a religious order.
Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus
Frances worked fervently at her studies, obtaining her teaching certificate. She applied for admission to the Daughters of the Sacred Heart, who had been her teachers, but was unfortunately not permitted to join due to her frail health.
Undeterred, she turned her attention to the House of Providence orphanage in Codogno, Italy, where she taught and did charitable work. She took her religious vows here in 1877, adding Xavier (Saverio) to her name in honor of the Jesuit saint, Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionary service. In 1880, with seven young women, Frances went on to found the Institute of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She was as resourceful as she was prayerful, finding people who would donate what she needed in money, time, labor and support.
Helping Italian Immigrants in the US
Frances and her sisters wanted to be missionaries in China, so she visited Rome to obtain an audience with Pope Leo XIII. Contrary to what Frances expected, the Pope told her to go “not to the East, but to the West,” to New York rather than to China. She was to help the thousands of Italian immigrants in the United States.
In 1889, Mother Frances Cabrini and her sister companions entered a new world: New York City. Initially, they met many difficulties and disappointments, but as always, Frances persevered. She organized catechism and education classes for the Italian immigrants and provided for the needs of the many orphans. She also established schools and orphanages despite tremendous odds.
Expanding Operations Around the World
Soon, requests for her to open schools came to Mother Frances from all over the world. She traveled to Europe, Central and South America and throughout the United States. She crossed the Atlantic Ocean repeatedly, rode on horseback in the Andes and crossed the lands of Central America, Brazil, Argentina, Europe, and the United States by train and even on foot, establishing a total of 67 institutions: schools, hospitals and orphanages.
Her desire was to spread love and devotion towards Jesus’ Heart through prayer, example, and the work of her Missionaries—promoting solidarity, defense of life, and the dignity of human beings.
Her activity was relentless until her death on December 22, 1917 in Chicago. Following the exhaustive Vatican processes of beatification and canonization, Mother Cabrini was declared Blessed on November 13, 1938.
On July 7, 1946, she was canonized a saint by Pope Pius XII in recognition of her holiness and service to humanity. She became the first United States citizen to be canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.
In the book, “Immigrant Saint, The Life of Mother Cabrini” by Pietro Di Donato, he writes of the canonization day,
“On July 7, 1946, St. Peter’s wore a holiday appearance. It’s venerable and imposing pillars were decked with magnificent ancient damask hangings. Countless electric lights and candles were grouped around the pontifical altar…paintings depicting Mother Cabrini hung from the balconies. The activities in the Vatican began just after seven in the morning, when the Cardinals, patriarchs, Archbishops and other dignitaries who were to participate in the canonization began to arrive at the Sistine Chapel. Pope Pius XII entered the Sistine Chapel and intoned the Ave Maris Stella.”
The Pope made the following solemn declaration in Latin:
“…we inscribe in the Catalogue of the Saints, the blessed Francesca Xavier Cabrini, ordaining that her memory be celebrated in the universal church on the Day of December 22, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”
St. Frances Xavier Cabrini was named Patroness of Immigrants in 1950, and in 1999, Pope St. John Paul referred to her as the Missionary of the New Evangelization.